The Americans with Disability Act Turns 25

On July 26, 2015 the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) celebrated its 25th Anniversary. To mark the occasion, the IOD will be running a series of articles over the coming months looking at the history, what the current landscape looks like, and take a peek into what we see happening in the future. This first article, written by the IOD’s Associate Director, Dr. Susan Fox, takes a look at the disability rights movement.

Life for people with disabilities is notably better today than it was twenty five years ago, in large part due to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. But the history of the ADA began long before its passage in 1990 and was built on the advocacy efforts of individuals with disabilities and their families and advocates who continually challenged the societal barriers that kept them segregated, isolated, and excluded from the same educational, employment, and recreational opportunities enjoyed by all citizens. The disability movement took its lead from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, a movement which staged protests by participants chaining themselves to the steps of federal buildings, obstructing inaccessible buses, and holding marches. Subsequently, Individuals with disabilities and their families fought to change the perception that people with disabilities should be segregated. They pushed for equal rights and the end to discrimination against persons with disabilities.

Beginning in the late 1800’s and continuing into the late 1900’s, institutional care was the norm for individuals with disabilities. Problems with institutional care began surfacing throughout the country in the 1960s and 1970s. In New Hampshire, families of individuals with disabilities living at the Laconia State School began to organize. Appalled by the conditions at the State School, parents eventually sued the State, asking for improved conditions. The parents won their suit and the State began to work to improve the conditions at the State School, while also developing services in local communities. However, Medicaid, created in 1965, established care in institutional settings as an entitlement and made no provisions for home-based care. Individuals with disabilities and their families were faced with the untenable choice of living in an institutional setting or going without services. In 1985 the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services made a significant change to the Medicaid program to allow states to apply for waivers to this institutional requirement, allowing states to provide services to people in their homes and community. NH was one of the first states in the nation to apply for this waiver to institutional care, allowing federal funds to be used to provide services in the community. This funding supported the State’s efforts to build a community-based system of care and eventually close the Laconia State School, making New Hampshire the first state to close its only institution for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The passage of the ADA in 1990 further strengthened the disability movement’s efforts to assure that individuals with disabilities would have the freedom to live and work in the community and to be free from segregation and discrimination. Institutional living is no longer seen as the only option for people with disabilities. The ADA affords people with disabilities with the right to work; to be full and participating members of their communities; to live, work, and play in their communities; and to be free from discrimination. These rights seem to be a matter of simple justice, but they were hard fought, and disability activists must remain vigil to assure that they are upheld.